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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Christian journalist: “I have called to witness witnesses” (Isaiah 8)

Isaiah 8:1-2. “The LORD said to me, ‘Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen” Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. And I will call in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me.

(Note: This was one of the first chapel messages that I delivered to the WJI students in 1999. It has been a staple message since then.)

There is danger in the land. The true Church is being attacked and threatened with extinction.  Even more grievous, the false Church is joining in the attack and the threats. The people of God are frightened and her leaders are nervous. The enemies of the faith have surrounded the faithful and are plotting their destruction. The temptation for the faithful is to compromise or to surrender.  And even within the true Church, there are those calling for unholy alliances, toleration of sin, and a modernization of the ancient orthodox doctrines (Jer. 5:30-31; 6:16).  It is a perilous time for God’s people and there is a great need for bold and faithful leaders for the Church.  Sounds like the current environment, but in fact, it was the Church’s situation during Isaiah’s lifetime 700 years before Christ.

The Scriptures tell us that at moments like I’ve described God has sent His “heralds”  and His “reliable witnesses” (Is. 8:2) to encourage “Abraham’s seed.”  This morning we are going to look at God’s “reliable witnesses” in just such a situation as I’ve described, and how that appellation applies to us aspiring journalists of faith today. Turn with me to Isaiah 8.

Isaiah’s Situation

The historical picture we are given in Isaiah 7 and 8 is the threat of a northern kingdom (Israelite/Syrian) attack against the southern kingdom (Jerusalem/Judah) under King Ahaz in about 730 BC.  Pagan Syria (Aram under King Rezin), had already conquered the Northern Kingdom (Ephraim/Israel) and was threatening to take the Southern Kingdom (Judah/Jerusalem), now completely exposed to attack. Ahaz, king of the Southern kingdom, wanted to form an alliance with another pagan nation, Assyria, for protection against this northern alliance.  Isaiah 7:1 tells us that one part of God’s people in the north (Israel) has turned on the other part of God’s people in the south (Judah) for conquest and domination.  In short, the Old Testament Church (Acts 7:38) is divided.  Is. 7:2 tells us that the leaders of the southern “house of David” (Jerusalem/Judah) were “shaken” and the people were frightened. Who would wonder?  But God sends Isaiah, His herald, to bolster the southern Judean spirit by encouraging the Jerusalemites to remain faithful as he tells them in 7:9, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”   It is in this capitulating environment that we find ourselves.

In a most instructive passage for us Christian journalists, The LORD speaks to Isaiah in Is. 8:1-2. Let’s take a brief look at these 2 verses:

The LORD said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. And I will call in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me.”

What does the LORD tell Isaiah to do?  Isaiah is to proclaim loudly and clearly the judgment for sin. In order more effectually to arouse the Church, God commands that this prophecy be made publicly known by writing, that it may be understood by all.  It was the custom of the prophets, after having been enjoined to deliver any message to the people, to sum up in a few words — a brief abstract, a headline — the substance of what the prophets had said, and then to affix this headline to the gates of the temple.  When this slogan, this bumper strip, this headline (Is. 8:20) had been displayed for a sufficient number of days, it was removed by the priests, and placed in the temple treasury, that it might remain as a permanent record for the people (Is. 30:8).  So Isaiah is to take a “scroll,” not just any scroll, but a “large scroll” (“large tablet”) that could easily be seen by passers-by.   The word translated “scroll” in the NIV is perhaps more accurately translated “slab” or “plank,” (or “mirror” as it is earlier in Is. 3:23).  In short, it was to be an advertising “small billboard.”
Now, what is Isaiah supposed to do with this “billboard”?  He is to write on it in simple, easy-to-understand language, the language of the common people.  There was to be no misunderstanding of this divine, pithy statement because it was to be written in “plain” Hebrew (the Hebrew vulgate)(Hab. 2:2). If it is going to be an “everlasting witness,” people have got to understand the message.

The message on the board is somewhat irrelevant for our purposes today,  but what is important is that the message would be a public record of the historic fact that God was active in history.  The phrase refers to real history and real people and real events.  In this act of writing we have a general headline announcement of the unhappy destiny for God’s people that had been predicted earlier in Chp. 7. The brevity and conciseness of these 4 Hebrew words (“Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz”) is emphatic and impressionable.  Even the most ignorant and uneducated Jerusalemite could read and ponder this brief message.

And then the LORD tells Isaiah that He, God, has “chosen” or “called” 2 men to be “reliable witnesses” (“record,” “reiterate,” “duplicate,” “repeat”) to the fact that God is going to do something in history.

John Calvin elegantly translated this Hebrew phrase (“and I will call reliable witnesses for me”) in Is. 8:2 into contestatus sum testes (“I have called to witness witnesses”).  As I have said, we English translate the Hebrew “faithful witness,”  “reliable witnesses,” “true/creditworthy witnesses,” “confirmed/steady witnesses” or “trustworthy/honest witnesses.”
This phrase is used most often in the Old Testament to describe God Himself as being a trustworthy witness for or against His people (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 33:4; 89:49; Mal. 2:14; Jer. 42:5).  In fact, a supremely important role for the trinitarian character of our God is just such an inner-Trinitarian “trustworthy witness” to Himself.

But in one place, the sacred writings use this phrase to refer to humans – Is. 8:2 (cf., Is. 43:10). If I were to state in one phrase the purpose of the World Journalism Institute, it would be contained in this one verse:

WJI is established to train “reliable witnesses” to the activities of God and man. People should be able to count on us to give them the truth of what is going on around them.
I want to draw your attention to 2 aspects of this verse, which I find compelling:

1) It is God who raises up His own “witnesses.”

2) The personal merit of the “witnesses” chosen is not fundamentally important.
—————————————————

1) It is God who raises up His own witnesses.

This sovereign raising up of God’s own “witnesses” is not the main point of this passage. In fact, this aspect of this historical event is glossed over quickly in holy Scripture. The reason of the glossing is that it is taken for granted in Scripture that God controls His own testimony – He will see to it that a “faithful remnant” (Is. 1:9) remains to give testimony to His divine presence and activities. If human lips are stopped then the stones will cry out His majesty Luke tells us (Luke 19:40).  God will not be voiceless in His creation, in His world. And so in our passage in 730 BC, God raises up 2 voices to be His “faithful witnesses” to what He is about to do.  You are all here because for some reason, God has called you, chosen you to be here.  We WJI staff members believe in God’s sovereignty. You are God’s chosen ones for this time and this place.  As far as WJI is concerned, you are all Esthers (Esther 4:14).

2) The personal merit of the individuals chosen is not fundamentally important.

God does not choose individuals because they are worthy — He makes people worthy of His choice!  He doesn’t make choices based on worthiness because no one is worthy (Rom. 3:9-20).  Now He will anoint individuals for certain tasks, but their worthiness comes from Him. And we see this sovereign selection very clearly in our passage, for “Uriah” and “Zechariah” are not worthy individuals. God is intrusting His testimony, in this case to 2 men who are, at best, undistinguished, and probably worthless apostates. We know from sacred scripture that Uriah was slavishly devoted to Satan and the godless desires of the evil Judean king, Ahaz (2 Kings 16:10ff).  Zechariah was, of course, not the prophet, but perhaps the “Zechariah” only serially mentioned in 2 Chronicles 29:13. We’re not sure.
The point is, these two men were chosen by God to be His “reliable witnesses” not for their personal piety and godliness, but rather for their position in the community. These men held posts of honor and importance (one was even a priest)  This is like calling forth sinful individuals (you and I) to be journalists, to be “reliable witnesses,” to report God’s activities to a listening, reading community.  It is not that we are good; it is the calling that is good!

Notice that God does not speak to Uriah and Zechariah.  They were not prophets.  They were “witnesses.” He continues to speak through His chosen, anointed prophet, His “herald,” — Isaiah (Is. 40:9).  But God does call these 2 social leaders to “witness” what He is doing.

Conclusion

I suggest to you that being “faithful witnesses” is the role of the journalist who is a Christian.  This has always been the role. The journalist of faith is not a prophet, but a “reliable eyewitness” to the activities of a holy God and the activities of a sinful humankind.  Tragically, sometimes it is the role of “reliable witnesses” to witness against the Church when the Church falls into sin, as in our Isaiah passage (or in Ezekiel).  Our passage also teaches that these “reliable witnesses” were to testify for future generations. So it is with journalists.  We journalists write for the ages. We record for posterity. The Church and society at large depend upon “faithful witnesses” to record the truth of what is going on today so that the Church might be instructed tomorrow.  Newspapers and magazines have archives – we write for the archives, as well as today. Our motto might be, “If God did it today, it is news to us.”

In sum, journalists who are Christian enjoy the high calling of being faithful “eyewitnesses”  to the sovereign God as He acts in the world today.

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